“I don’t particularly enjoy watching films in 3D because I think that a well-shot and well-projected film has a very three-dimensional quality to it, so I’m somewhat sceptical of the technology.”
Have you heard of this game? Why didn’t I hear about it sooner?!
Before PlayStation VR, before Square merged with Enix, before the worlds of Final Fantasy, before Hironobu Sakaguchi created them and Nobuo Uematsu scored them, there was The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner, or 3D WorldRunner for short. Known in Japan as Operation: Jump Out, this obscure game was a third-person, forward-scrolling rail shooter platformer developed by Square (the first one to reach America) and published by Acclaim for the NES. And it is one of the most wonderful personal discoveries I’ve made from the 8-bit era.
A discovery? Let me explain.My wife and I were watching a vid of 749 NES games in 15 minutes (which I highly recommend enjoying for yourself) when she suddenly exclaimed: “Hey! I remember that one!” We had to look it up. Turns out it was fathered by a pre-Final Fantasy Sakaguchi as designer, Gebelli as programmer, and Nobuo Uematsu as composer for a then struggling Square. She somehow remembered WorldRunner from her childhood, so we had this moment of sudden realization that her and I were playing games made by Sakaguchi and Uematsu when we were children separated by miles of the Pacific ocean.
The surprise didn’t stop there. WorldRunner isn’t truly three-dimensional, despite it’s title. It is however stereoscopic. There’s a perception of depth since the game’s character runs forward and the ground scrolls beneath him while objects and enemies appear in the distance and then get larger as he passes them. Pressing select would even trigger a special anaglyph 3D mode that required red/cyan glasses (“free” glasses included with the purchase of the original game).
I made a pair of these from scratch the other night with some clear plastic and colored sharpies, and the imagery is a little crude but it works nonetheless. What’s most amazing to me is that this is 1987 we’re talking about here. The scrolling background is impressive enough for the NES but adding a special 3D filter on top of that is incredible.
3D WorldRunner is about the adventures of Jack the WorldRunner space cowboy.
With a time limit, Jack’s gotta run around several alien worlds. Eight of them to be exact. Each world has a bunch of sections and bonus areas, and they are crowded with obstacles and enemies. Getting hit once means you’re dead and you’ll have to start from the beginning of that world’s section. Extra lives are rare, too.
There are also lots and lots of bottomless pits. Jack can jump but timing the height and acceleration/deceleration of his trajectory is tricky as heck. Of course, falling into one means immediate death. To top it all off, it’s almost impossible to tell how wide the pits are and therefore how far you’ll need to jump.
Pillars in each of the worlds can be bumped into and will produce items that Jack can collect to expand his repertoire of abilities. Missiles allow Jack to shoot projectiles directly forward to destroy enemies and potions turn his green suit an orange color to grant him some extra defense (when orange he can take more than one hit from an enemy before going down for the count). Careful ’cause if you’re hit when orange you lose not only your extra defense but also your missiles, provided you’d picked those up as well.
There are also warp balloons to waft off to bonus areas, pink stars that can be grabbed for extra points, clocks to add more time, and an atom item to grant temporary invincibility. Just don’t ever pick up the mushroom item. For some reason it will kill you instantly. It was as if Square wanted to say “Screw you, Mario!”
At the end of each of the eight worlds are dragons as bosses, known as Serpentbeasts. When fighting them, Jack can fly all across the screen and shoot as if he’d picked up a set of missiles. The segments of the Serpentbeasts blow up one by one as the monsters rush toward you but defeating them allows you to advance to the next world.
You can never stop running until you reach the end of the game. All you can do is control how fast Jack goes, or move him side to side. This is a man on a mission!
See Jack run. Run, Jack, run.
The 8-bit Review
This isn’t even a game that came out toward the end of the NES’s lifespan. It was discontinued in ’95, but this is ’87, folks. Almost a decade before the system closed, WorldRunner was one of the most impressive games on the system. What’s immediately striking is the pace of these scrolling graphics that give the illusion of playing a 3D game. On the NES!
There are at times several enemies and obstacles on screen and I detected little slow down or notorious sprite flicker. It’s one of the most visually advanced games on the NES and seems to be way ahead of its time. Like several games on that system it has also aged rather gracefully, though the enemies and obstacles are little more than spherical blobs or blocks. This game redefined what I thought the NES was capable of. And I thought very highly of it already.
Also, the ability to switch in-game between red/cyan 3D and “normal” modes at the touch of a button is great. Good luck finding an original copy with the original glasses in tact or playing it for very long with homemade ones without getting a headache. Still, there’s a flittering moment when the little kid inside of you would be thrilled to don the iconic glasses and get wowed at thirty year old technology.
Okay so we all know Nobuo Uematsu’s galactic body of work on a majority of the Final Fantasy franchise and maybe even a bit of his collaboration with The Black Mages. He’s a melodic composer who developed a keen ear for emotion and film-quality compositions over the decades of his career. The themes he’s written for entire projects and characters are legendary. They’re full of personality. He’s the Beethoven of video games. So then how does WorldRunner‘s soundtrack hold up as an example of some very early, pre-Final Fantasy work?
Listen for yourself.
Catchy isn’t it? It isn’t exactly good, though, and the other tracks are virtually just ten-second looping ditties. Given that the NES had limited musical capacities but there is really only this one song on this game that’s really a true song, and not just a snippet. It is bound to get stuck in your head though and its memorable. Good thing every single world plays the same track. This song has been stuck looping in my head for hours now. It’s just so snappy. And easy to beat box to, too. A triumph in that regard.
Might not be his best work but it’s appropriate for a simple, addictive, arcade-style game.
Jumping and later firing is just about all Jack the WorldRunner can do except for moving side to side. Pressing up on the d-pad will accelerate his running and down will conversely decelerate him. I figured out that this is the best way to control his jumps, though my first tendency was to just run as fast as possible to clear bottomless pits. Yet when there are two pits close together with only a sliver of land on which to… land between them, then you’ve got to ensure you glide carefully down onto the strip before making your next leap. As soon as you let go of the button, Jack begins to descend. It sounds obvious but the physics of the game took a bit to get the hang of, probably because Jack can jump so high.
The items feel more or less useless except for the orange suit for that extra hit. The missiles are next in line for most beneficial but it quickly gets confusing if you’re spamming those shots to obliterate upcoming enemies and then you have a big bottomless pit. Timing your jumps precisely is a must and that’s tough to do if you’re focused on shooting.
Exactly what he can jump on or safely bump into isn’t clear. The game in fact largely depends on trial and error. For example, I didn’t really know that bumping into the green pillars would yield special items. That doesn’t seem to be instinctual, exactly. Compare that to Super Mario Bros. which tells the player where special items are by marking off certain blocks with flashing question marks. You automatically think, “Hey, what’s in that?”
Dying by picking up a mushroom is another cheap trick. If the game is telling you that you pick up special items by bumping into the pillars, then you don’t necessarily expect pillars to relinquish items that can instantly mortify poor Jack. Yet that’s exactly what happens. Similarly, there are later levels where you have to jump on top of pillars (even pillars of fire) in order to cross impossibly wide canyons. That ignores everything that the game has previously told you about the nature of pillars and fire-pillars. Trial and error it is, then.
It is so easy to die in this game and every time you’ll have to start from the beginning of the area. One hit is nothing for how many fast moving enemies there are and for how many tricky jumps there be. Each world gets subsequently harder very fast and the game is already pretty demanding. World 2 already seemed to have Jack running much faster than he did in World 1.
Oh and remember what I said about pushing up and down for acceleration and deceleration? That’s only true half of the time. The other half of the time the game completely ignores any input in that regard and forces you to run at a breakneck pace, making the timing you’ve carefully committed to muscle memory moot for the new jumps that await.
Precision is ultimately the key and that’s harder than it sounds when you’ve got to try to land Jack on top of a series of springboard aliens only as wide as himself in order to cross huge chasms. But hey, if the game isn’t hard enough for you masochists, there’s a secret code you’re granted upon completing the game to unlock Hard Mode. It’s Start, B, B, B, B, hold Left+Up, and Start, provided you want that inscribed as the epitaph on your tombstone.
If you want a retro challenge, this is it. Maybe if it used motion-controls more nerds would look like this:
Despite all of the difficulty and the gameplay, or perhaps because of them, WorldRunner is in fact an addicting game. I had some trouble finishing this review as I kept wanting to just go back and play it. Key to that level of seductiveness is the fact that you want to naturally see how far you can get, and when you get a game over you’ll think to yourself that you know you can get farther than that. I found myself saying “Just one more go” more than once, especially once I caught on to the sense of physics.
I haven’t seen much anything like it, yet my research uncovered that WorldRunner bore many typical elements of rail shooters and it was even considered a ripoff of the 1985 arcade game Space Harrier from Sega. The developers claimed they wanted to show off their 3D programming capabilities but Sakaguchi did admit that he liked Space Harrier. How could you not? Maybe WorldRunner is a blatant blot of plagiarism but it’s still a unique entry as far as the NES library is concerned.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
As of today I am amending my post “20 Titles the NES mini forgot” to include The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner. Technically advanced and still impressive with its scrolling and its 3D, WorldRunner is the biggest delightful surprise I’ve had with reviewing vintage games this year. It’s fun, engaging, addicting, and challenging. It’s also now the holy grail of bargain buys from a pawn shop or thrift store if you can ever find the complete original package, glasses included.
Also, just now I got a notification that said I’ve been on WordPress for two years now.
Of course that was work on other blogs. I’m happy that the notification popped up as a surprise right after I finished a post about a retro game that really surprised me. You never know what’s out there. Have you played this one? Have you even heard of it, bro?
Aggregated Score: 7.0